Bitch Planet: Get It While You Can
Fair warning: I put spoilers in this and also it is probably not safe for your work
Bitch Planet is the greatest comic book of all time. Written by Eisner Award nominee, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and brought alive with the Lichtensteinian art of co-creator, Valentine de Landro, Bitch Planet gives a much needed injection of witty feminism into the male-dominated comics industry.
Bitch Planet is about women - all of them - not just the ones that hang out with groups of guys like the Justice League and the Suicide Squad. It takes place in a dystopian future where women can be sent to prison for crimes like murder and assault, sure, but also seduction and disappointment; emotional manipulation; patrilineal dishonor; being a bad mother; unpermitted birth/Trisomy 21; and gender falsification (transexualism). Recidivists are labeled “non-compliant” and sent to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, which is colloquially known as “Bitch Planet”, because that’s where they send all the bitches. The nature of the story lends itself naturally to diversity. Bitch Planet is a hyperbolic representation of our own culture and all the types of women we sideline show up on Bitch Planet. This year it was awarded the first Virginia Library Association Diversity Award.
The main character of Bitch Planet is a super smart, super hardass, woman of color named Kamau Kogo who is hatching a plan to escape and be reunited with her trans sister. My favorite character is Penny Rolle, a large woman of color who, right in the first panels of the first issue starts a riot because the prison guards try to force her into a humiliatingly small uniform.
There’s a lot of rad action in this series but what resonates most strongly and separates it from the pack is the more subtle, but all too relatable, depictions of what it’s like to be anything but a cis-white male. Take for example, this scene from the story of how Rolle was sentenced to Bitch Planet. It begins with Rolle serving customers at her bakery:
Many readers will recognize, and probably have experienced, the body shaming that impels three women to share a single sugar-free muffin. And many will have also experienced the body-shaming amplified by racism that drives Rolle to violence. The greatest virtue of Bitch Planet is the validation it provides people who are consistently discriminated against and also consistently told they are imagining their own oppression. DeConnick recognizes dehumanizing experiences, holds them up for the world to see, and valorizes heroes who stand up against them, consequences be damned.
Bitch Planet comes along at a time when there’s a lot of talk about increasing diversity in the comics industry. More women than you might think read comics, though knowing exactly how many is really hard. Neither Marvel, DC, nor Diamond Comic Distributors (the largest distributor of comics in North America) release the demographic information they collect about their readers. But there is circumstantial evidence that women are consuming comic books and related commodities almost as much as men. According to a thorough essay by Victoria McNally, initial studies show that about 40% of geek culture (including comics, passes for Comic Cons, movies about superheroes, etc.) is consumed by women. Some franchises have a somewhat smaller percentage of female consumers but some reach a pretty even 50/50 divide.
Marvel and DC recognize that women present a promising market and, to appeal to them, are revitalizing characters such as Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, Spider-Woman, Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn. For all the focus on characters such as these, however, Marvel and DC are slow to add new female leads to their lineup. Tim Hanley, author of Wonder Woman unbound, shows that from January to July of this year, for example, the percentage of female lead characters at both companies bounced around 15%. This percentage sometimes rose and sometimes fell and, in the final analysis, there was no net gain for women.
Bitch Planet is published by Image Comics which has a great reputation for actively cultivating diversity in its comics but their ratio of male to female characters seems to skew toward the former. Moreover, the list of creators on their website is overwhelming male, showing that they struggle to cultivate gender diversity where it matters most - in real life.*
The comics industry has held a possible future of gender parity out as bait for women consumers for a long time. Let’s remember that it was 75 years ago that Woman Woman made her breakout feminist debut. Over time we’ve also had Catwoman, Black Widow, Storm, the She-Hulk and all kinds of other strong female characters that seem to portend better times to come for women readers. But gains are small and may be reversed at any time. We are not necessarily on an inevitable trajectory towards getting the representation we deserve. The uncertain future of women in comics makes it all the more important to read Bitch Planet. It’s a rare, crystalline moment of pure feminist comic bookery that may not be duplicated for a long time to come. Get it while you can, feminists: read Bitch Planet.
*I don’t have hard stats for Image’s gender divide in their comic books or their offices. I’ve reached out to them a couple of days ago and will update the essay as I receive more information.
Update! I heard from Kat Salazar at Image who said this about female representation at the company:
Salazar also did not have exact numbers for how many female and male creators Image works with but did mention the high number of female industry leaders they employ. Salazar mentioned as well that 12 of their 26 in-house staff members are women.